14.6.16

THE BURDEN OF BAD IDEAS.

In "Trump and Critical Theory," UCLA's (motto: On! Wisconsin!) Mark Bauerlein extends the identity-politics arguments structuring the presidential aspirant's attempts to disqualify a judge.
Anyone who has worked in academe for a measure of time has to wonder at the shock and ire of these critics. What's the big deal? We have heard the premise of Trump's gripe repeated so many times that it has become a standard part of the stagecraft of public and private debate. No concept has undergone more dismantling in the last half century than objectivity. And no criticism against objectivity has had greater popular impact than the one that says judgment is inevitably swayed by racial/ethnic/gender/sexual factors.

That line of thinking is the sole legal basis for affirmative action in college admissions, for instance.
Yes, although the course of affirmative action reflects a prior history in which the composition of a jury matters more in providing a black man than a white man with a fair trial.  And the identity politics enterprise might be a way of achieving objectivity, or it might be an argument that there is no objectivity.
College and universities may practice discrimination because of the reality of racially conditioned minds.

The grounds for that assumption reach back to the Marx and Freud, among others, especially to their critique of the liberal dream of cognitive freedom. The dream allowed that, with enough education and a cosmopolitan disposition, you could transcend your circumstances and reach an unbiased viewpoint. Familial, tribal and national interests would fade, identitarian limits (racial, etc.) would fall away, and a universal human eye would be achieved.

Readers of Inside Higher Ed don't need a rehearsal of how that objectivity collapsed. Hegel historicized it, Marx materialized it, Freud psychoanalyzed it. Forever after, the liberal mind was considered a pretense -- an effort to transcend history, class or psychic repression. Race/class/gender/sexuality critics of the 1980s and ’90s gave these grand undoings an identity twist, an easy step to take in the wake of civil rights, women's lib and the Gay Liberation Front.
Let's save for another day the challenges of uprooting emerged and entrenched norms of behavior, some codified legally, others less so, in the presence of objective conditions under which we might be able to live differently than our ancestors, who first adopted those norms.
For identity arguments are not equal opportunity. You can raise the objectivity problem when a white man is in power, but you may not do so when a woman or person of color is in power. In other words, Trump has crossed one of the prohibitions that sustain the identity regime. He dares to challenge a man of color on the grounds of his color; also, he reveals the double standards of those who routinely challenge white men on the grounds of their color (and sex).
No. Identity arguments arise as a way of dealing with previous absence of equal opportunity.  Whether granting privilege to some identity arguments as a way of expanding opportunities works, or whether they deteriorate into Oppression Olympics are also for other days.  But one feature of the Trump movement has been its willingness to take on the Kultursmog's default setting, under which the transgressiveness of a protected status individual is OK, but it's not for someone more sure of his status.
Group thinking and the bad-straight-white-male image have never enjoyed so much popularity. I believed in 1992 that nobody but a transient subset of humanities professors would pay attention to identity theory after the fashion went away, but I was wrong. The feminism and neopragmatism and critical race theory and queer theory that assailed objectivity and dominated the seminar room have settled into dogma in the press, the courtroom, the art world, the White House. The counterculture is now the hegemony.

Trump is an intervention in that spread. He breaks the rules, breaches decorum, says the unsayable. He is precisely the transgressive figure that critical theory in the ’90s exalted. If they were principled in their assumptions, academic theorists wouldn’t join the universal denunciation of Donald Trump by the elite and the establishment. They would situate him in a framework of taboo and totem, interdiction, madness and civilization, or the scapegoat. I’m pretty sure that if Foucault were alive today, he would have been fascinated and amused by the phenomenon of the Republican primary winner -- and utterly bored by the other side.
The ensuing bull session features the usual mix of "Seriously" and "Shut Up."

Five months to run.

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